On May 9, 1995, I was in Moscow, covering the 50th anniversary of Victory Day, the end of World War II in Europe. I had lived in Russia earlier in the 1990s and seen how Russians marked the day — hourslong military parades featuring soldiers past and present, tanks and other armored vehicles, all marching through Moscow’s Red Square. Across the city, all day long, one found a festive atmosphere; older men wore their medals and ribbons on jacket lapels. A sense of pride and patriotism was palpable.
That year’s event drew President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and dozens of other dignitaries, but I drove a few hours outside Moscow for a different “V-Day” story: A village was burying two local soldiers whose remains had been found in the spring thaw. Similar ceremonies had been held for decades all over European Russia: men who had been left where they fell in the early 1940s, brought to the surface by the passage of time. Each spring, more bones were found, and each year, May 9 was the day on which they were given a proper farewell, whether anyone knew their names or not.
I thought of all this the other day, when word came that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be factoring May 9 into his war planning.
In a statement posted to Facebook, the general staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces cited “propaganda work being carried out among the personnel of the Russian Federation’s armed forces, which imposes the idea that the war must be ended by May 9, 2022.” CNN reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts suggested Putin was focused on May 9 as a date on which “he can show a victory.”
On the one hand, it seems odd that a wartime leader would make tactical decisions based on a holiday. On the other, Victory Day is no ordinary holiday in Russia. It is both a nationwide celebration of the victory over Adolf Hitler’s Reich (in Russia, it’s not “World War II” but the “Great Patriotic War”) and a recognition of extraordinary sacrifice. The Soviet Union lost at least 24 million civilians and troops — by far the highest figure for any country in the war.
To understand Victory Day, think Memorial Day, Veterans Day and July 4 rolled into one, overlaid with an almost North Korea-style military gloss. Put differently, it’s hard to imagine a Victory Day in Russia with nothing to celebrate.
“May 9 is very significant for Russians,” Kseniya Kirillova, a former reporter for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, told Grid. “It’s important for Putin to secure at least some symbolic victory in Ukraine by May 9, at any cost.” She noted that just prior to last year’s festivities Putin called May 9 “the most important, holy holiday.”
Vasily Gatov, an expert in Russian media at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication, added that “it is very Russian and Soviet to arrange some kind of achievement in accordance with a particular date — Stalin’s birthday, Victory Day or others.” Gatov believes it may not be Putin himself but his top military aides who will have the calendar in mind.
“I have to presume that Russian generals know how keen Putin is on V-Day celebrations,” he told Grid. “And they may have planned some ‘final solution of the Ukrainian question’ for close to May 9.”
The rub for the generals, and perhaps Putin himself: how to ensure there is something worth celebrating when the day arrives?
The calendar — and the war in Ukraine
The last time the calendar entered conversations and analysis of the war was in its early days. Putin’s “special military operation” was to be a quick, surgical strike, a few days needed to subdue the Ukrainian resistance, capture large swathes of the east and south, perhaps even install a new regime. While the Kremlin never issued a timetable, it was expected to be a matter of days, perhaps a few weeks.
More than two months into the war, Russian ground forces have incurred staggering losses of men and materiel, and failed to control areas where they have been fighting.
On March 25, Russian military leaders addressed the nation and redefined their objectives. The “first part of the operation” had been “mainly accomplished,” they said; the focus now would be on the “complete liberation of the Donbas” region in the east. It was a significant pivot, taken outside Russia as an admission of failure but designed to give the impression that all was going as planned.
Taking the Donbas region — or its smaller slices of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” that have been a point of contention for eight years now — would have given Putin at least something of a “victory” for Victory Day. But the reality is that May 9 is just a few days away, and thus far, Russian forces have captured exactly one city — Kherson — only to lose it to Ukrainian defenders. Russia has lost between 7,000 and 15,000 forces — perhaps more than that (these estimates were given several weeks ago) and eight generals. May 9 is above all a day for the symbols and trappings of “victory” — and to date, the iconic symbols of Putin’s war are the charred remains of Russian armored vehicles that have been picked off by the Ukrainians. Last month, the Moskva, flagship of the country’s Black Sea Fleet, went to the bottom of the sea.
Putin’s best hopes may be that the newly articulated plans offer focus — geographically, and in terms of mission; tens of thousands of troops have been redeployed to the new front, and a new commander has the reins.
But the stresses on the Russian military are unmistakable. Rob Lee, an expert in the Russian military at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said via Twitter that “the level of attrition and forces committed isn’t sustainable.”
What might be in Putin’s “victory” speech?
Beyond the parades, the Russian (or Soviet) leader has almost always had a message for his people on May 9. This year there is no shortage of predictions and intelligence assessments as to how Russian President Vladimir Putin will mark the day. Most fall into one of two categories: Putin will claim some military achievement — real or otherwise; or he will announce an escalation of hostilities. Many believe he will do both.
There is “good reason to believe that the Russians will do everything they can to use” May 9 for propaganda purposes, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. “We’ve seen the Russians really double down on their propaganda efforts … as a means to distract from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
What “victories” can Putin claim?
Russian forces are on the verge of taking the southern port city of Mariupol, after a series of assaults and a weekslong siege that has killed at least 10,000 civilians — and perhaps double that number — according to the city’s mayor. Russian forces already patrol the city’s streets and have been seen handing out bread and other staples to the citizens who remain. The capture of Mariupol would count as at least one important “victory” for the Russians; an official in the city said Russian forces were planning to hold a parade in Mariupol on May 9.
With no other battlefield successes, Putin might make false claims — of having won fights that his forces haven’t won, taken territory that remains contested, or “denazified” populations that weren’t “nazified” in the first place.
Apart from claims of “victory,” U.S. and other Western intelligence officials believe Putin may use the occasion to formally declare war on Ukraine — an escalation in terms of rhetoric (no longer a mere “special military operation”), but also a change that would allow for a full mobilization of Russia’s reserve forces. Military experts have said Russia desperately needs infusions of manpower.
“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation,’” British defense minister Ben Wallace said last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say ‘look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.’”
Meanwhile, Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said on Monday that the U.S. has “highly credible” intelligence reports that Russia will try to annex the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk — if not on May 9 itself, then “some time in mid-May.”
The greater fear is that May 9 may bring a total reframing of the war itself, and a full-on declaration of NATO and the West as the enemy. This sort of language — along with frequent, not-so-veiled references to Russia’s nuclear capability — has been prominent lately in the Russian media, which never strays far from the Kremlin view. In this scenario, Victory Day becomes the moment when Putin ratchets at least his rhetoric into dangerous new territory.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov weighed in this week on all the pre-Victory Day prognostications. Speaking with the Italian outlet Mediaset, Lavrov insisted that Russia would not alter its operations because of the holiday.
“Our military will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day,” Lavrov said. “We will solemnly celebrate May 9, as we always do. Remember those who fell for the liberation of Russia and other republics of the former USSR, for the liberation of Europe from the Nazi plague.”
A Putin advantage: the information war
Whatever the message, and whatever is happening on the front lines, Putin’s iron grip on the Russian media will help the Russian leader and his commanders as they consider the calendar. The war has consistently shown the Kremlin’s willingness to reframe or invent the narrative. See the Bucha massacres — a “fabrication” created by Great Britain; the sinking of the Moskva — an accidental fire onboard the ship, in the Russian telling; and the almost-certainly inaccurate counts of Russian casualties. It’s not hard to imagine a combination of theatrics and invention that allows May 9 to look like the celebration it has always been.
On May 9, Putin might come to the Red Square reviewing stand and remember Russia’s fallen heroes in the great cause of “denazification” — 1,351 of them, by the Kremlin’s lower count. As Gatov notes, under Putin “Victory Day has been ideologically exploited — the shadow of the Soviet victory over Nazis has been feeding Putin’s revanchism.” There may be the usual parade of weapons and some new menacing rhetoric. The few surviving World War II veterans will be there, in their medal-filled jackets. And so will Putin and whichever top aides are in favor at the moment, watching and cheering. Russian television will no doubt do its part.
The catch, for Putin and his warmakers: On a date that so concentrates the Russian mind on soldiers and sacrifice, there will be not 1,351 families but closer to 20,000, all mourning a son or brother or father lost in Ukraine. Perhaps double that number will have landed on the wounded list. All those relatives and friends, and other members of the communities from which they came, will have their own thoughts on May 9 about sacrifice and what it has meant in Ukraine. And while Russians of a certain generation will do as they always have and honor that triumph of eight decades ago, many others will surely expect some news of triumph and greatness from the current war.
In Ukraine itself, May 9 is no longer a holiday. In 2015, the nation designated May 8 as the national holiday, in line with much of Europe. It was one more rupture — if a symbolic one — from Moscow’s orbit. This year, curfews have been declared across Ukraine for May 8 and 9; a journalist in Kyiv told Grid that officials fear “mass provocations” and attacks by the Russians on those dates.
Meanwhile, for at least one other nation that was once in the Soviet sphere — and therefore forced to celebrate May 9 for decades — there is a clear plan for this year’s holiday. The government of Latvia has decreed that May 9, 2022, is to be “Ukraine Day,” a day of remembrance for victims of Putin’s war.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.